I am lucky enough to live in Shropshire, in Ludlow – one of the most treasured places in my known universe.
I am so unlucky to live in Shropshire, in Ludlow – one of the most trashed places in my known universe.
Yesterday, we lost our dream hospital. This was not for any real reason; it just fell through the widening cracks in the national health system.
We have also lost our local tip and recycling centre in Ludlow. It’s not official. It’s just that the staff have been told they have no jobs any more.
Everyone, everywhere is experiencing such slashing cuts. I object ferociously to the loss of our tip – and more so to loss of funding to improve local healthcare – but what concerns me most is the loss of local open democracy.
The decision to scrap Ludlow’s hospital was made in full public. It was an exemplar. Hundreds of people sat through both meetings. Dozens spoke to the two committees involved.
But Shropshire Council is making more and more of its important decisions behind closed doors. And these decisions are not even being made by a committee, not even by its Cabinet. They are made by lone councillors in meetings I am not allowed to attend as a member of public. Elected councillors are allowed to turn up but not necessarily allowed to speak. No councillor is allowed to make any alternative proposal.
On 4 November, the relevant Cabinet member will decide whether or not to close our local recycling centre. He will propose the motion and second it. The vote is guaranteed to be unanimous as the Cabinet member will be the only voter.
Not a single member of the public or the press is allowed to attend. We can’t watch them. We can’t talk to them. We can’t film them. There will there be no notes taken of that meeting. Nothing to say who said what. No public record of any discussion, comments or pleas by councillors is made. There is no appeal of the decision.
This is black hole democracy, in which the decision-making processes have become all but invisible and the only information that escapes is the decision.
Democracy needs to be open and transparent to survive. If we undermine open democracy in our rich poor county like ours, the wealthy elite will dominate and the vulnerable will suffer. That’s exactly what we are seeing.
We are losing a lot of important facilities and services that support the disadvantaged in the county. Vulnerable people are struggling to get their voices heard.
The most vital thing we are losing is the right for democracy to be enacted in public. Decisions about buses, day centres, recycling and so many more vital services are made behind closed doors. By one person. Doing little more than talking to themselves.
Having lost the essentials of open democracy, how will we ever rebuild the services that so many of the people of Shropshire need?
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice